Home to a rarified and almost resort-like air, the sleepy town of DANYANG (단양) is, quite simply, one of the most relaxing places in Korea. There’s little of the noise and clutter found in other urban areas, and life dawdles by at a snail’s pace – quite appropriate, really, since river snails are a local delicacy. These are dredged from Chungju Lake, a river-like expanse that curls a C-shape around the town centre; traversable by ferry, this route is Korea’s prettiest navigable inland waterway. Green, pine-covered ripples rise up from the lake – almost totally unspoilt, they make for a thoroughly enchanting backdrop. The loftiest converge at Sobaeksan, a pretty national park easily accessible from Danyang; on its cusp is Guinsa, one of the most distinctive temples in the whole of the land, and perhaps the highlight of the whole area.
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Shoehorned into a tranquil valley northeast of Danyang is GUINSA (구인사), one of Korea’s more remarkable temple complexes. A great divider among Koreans, it’s viewed by many as the most un-Korean temple, which is emphatically true – the colours and building styles are hard to find anywhere else in the country, and the usual elegant restraint of the traditional layouts has been replaced by a desire to show off. On the other hand, numbers alone bear witness to its importance – well over one thousand monks may reside here at any one time, and the kitchens can dish up food for twice that number on any given day. Guinsa is the headquarters of the Buddhist Cheontae sect; once the most powerful in the country, it declined to near-extinction by the 1940s, but was given a second lease of life in 1945 by Songwol Wongak, a monk who put his overseas studies to good use by creating an altogether different temple. Here, the usual black slate of Korean temple roofing has occasionally been eschewed for a glazed orange finish reminiscent of that in Beijing’s Forbidden City, and some buildings show hints of Lhasa’s Potala Palace with their use of height and vertical lines. Buildings swarm up the valley and connect in unlikely ways, with alleys and bridges crisscrossing like the dragons depicted around the complex; you’ll often wander up a path, and on looking back discover three or four routes that could have brought you to the same place. Despite being infested with an almost plague-like number of dragonflies in late summer, it’s one of the most scenic places in the country.
Sobaeksan National Park
Sobaeksan National Park
Far quieter than most Korean parks on account of its location, SOBAEKSAN NATIONAL PARK (소백산 국립 공원) is an unheralded delight. It is best visited at the end of spring (around May or June), when a carpet of royal azalea blooms paints much of the mountainside a riot of pink, but at any time of the year the views are impressive – the park is traversed by a relatively bare ridge heading in an admirably straight line from northeast to southwest, crossing numerous high peaks. A steep three-hour uphill path runs from the main entrance at Cheondong-ri to Birobong, the park’s highest peak at 1440m. After reaching the ridge most head straight back down, but if you follow it along in either direction you will be rewarded with a succession of amazing views. Many opt to head northeast to Gungmangbong (1421m), an hour or so away, but only the hardcore continue all the way to Hyeongjebong. Southwest of Birobong are three peaks, confusingly all named Yeonhwabong; on the central crest, taking advantage of the park’s clean air and lofty elevation, is Korea’s main astronomical observatory, though unfortunately it is closed to visitors. From here it’s possible to exit the park to the south through the Huibang park entrance, the two-hour walk mopping up small waterfalls and a secluded temple on the way.
Anyone spending any time in Danyang is sure to catch occasional glimpses of Ondal (온달), the town mascot – you’ll see him, and his huge eyebrows, on everything from restaurant signs to toilet doors. According to local legend, he was the town fool until wooing a local princess (perhaps using those eyebrows) to one of the town’s caves for an underground tryst; after their subsequent marriage, Ondal became a soldier of such skill that he eventually found himself promoted to general, fighting fierce battles at the fortress up the hill. The extremely Korean moral of the story seems to be that anything is possible with a good woman at your side.